Plot versus Story: What's the Difference?

drafting plotting
Plot vs. Story: What's the Difference?

The words “plot” and “story” are often used interchangeably. Plot and story, however, are two very different elements of a novel. So what is the difference between plot and story, and how can a writer be sure to use each effectively?

In this post, we’ll define both plot and story, how they are different, and how each serves a purpose in a novel. We’ll share tips on writing the elements of plot and story so that you can better understand the key differences when writing your own novel.

Plot vs. Story

Think of plot and story like riding a train. Think of the story as the path the train takes from beginning to end. It’s the reason you are on the train, getting you from where you are now to where you want to be. The plot on the other hand consists of the stops you make along the journey in order to reach the final destination. The plot moves the events in your story from one scene to the next, ensuring the story doesn’t stagnate.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between plot vs story.

Understanding Plot

The plot is the sequence of events that occur in the story. It encompasses the specific actions and conflicts that move the narrative forward. The plot outlines the structure of events, including the main story arc and any subplots. It focuses on the external events, emphasizing the "what" and "how" of the novel. The plot provides a roadmap of the story's events. It is the skeleton around which the story is built.

Plot keeps the reader engaged from the first page to the last. From plot twists to unexpected developments, a well-crafted plot keeps the reader’s attention so that they stay invested in the story. The plot also introduces conflict. Conflict can be internal, such as a character’s need to find friendship, purpose, and a place to belong, or the conflict can be external obstacles the character must overcome, generating tension and suspense. Conflict drives the narrative, builds anticipation, and keeps the reader emotionally invested in the outcome.

Understanding Story

The story is the big picture of a novel. If the plot is the “what” and “how” of a novel, the story is the “why.” It provides the core content of the narrative and serves as the vehicle through which the author explores themes and emotions. While the plot is how the events of the story unfold, the story is the narrative. It gives readers a glimpse into the world and lives of the characters, creating a rich and immersive experience. Story includes character development, themes, narrative structure, and the writing style used to tell the story.

A well-crafted story has the power to evoke a range of emotions in readers. Themes such as love, loss, identity, friendship, or self-discovery can evoke these emotions and create a deeper connection between the reader and the story, leaving a lasting impact on the reader.

Through story, characters grow and evolve as they delve into complex issues, societal dilemmas, moral quandaries, or philosophical questions. By creating relatable characters and situations, the story allows readers to connect emotionally and empathize with the struggles, triumphs, and growth of the characters by providing insights into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations. It can evoke a sense of catharsis or inspire introspection. Witnessing characters' growth, struggles, and triumphs can evoke empathy, sympathy, joy, or sadness.

The way in which a writer portrays the atmosphere and setting also contributes to the emotional tone of the narrative. The author can create a sense of place that immerses readers in the story's world, evoking feelings of excitement, fear, nostalgia, or wonder, heightening the emotional experience. The writing style, another element of the story, plays a crucial role in creating the emotional tone of the story. The use of vivid imagery, figurative language, and sensory details can evoke specific emotions in the reader. The pacing of the story, the use of suspense, or the use of evocative dialogue can also influence the reader's emotional engagement.

Plot vs. Story in Action

To see plot and story in action, take a look at Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. In this classic novel, the plot revolves around the romantic entanglements between the characters, focusing on the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. The plot outlines the events, conflicts, and resolutions that occur in the story.

However, the story of Pride and Prejudice explores themes of social class, prejudice, and the pursuit of happiness. It delves into the characters' internal struggles, growth, and emotional journeys. The story explores the dynamics of family and societal expectations, enriching the reader's experience beyond the sequence of events provided by the plot.

Tips on writing story vs plot

Now that you understand the difference between story and plot and how each is integral to a novel, here are a few tips for writing story and plot when planning a novel.

Outline

A key element to success in writing a story and plot is to outline. It’s hard to know how to plan a plot if you don’t know where the story is going. What major events or conflicts will drive the character’s actions? What character arcs will drive the narrative? How do you want your character to grow as the novel progresses? An outline can provide a roadmap, ensuring a clear direction and logical progression for your story. It also helps to identify any potential plot holes or inconsistencies early on.

Create compelling characters

In order to engage readers, you must introduce compelling characters that the readers will care about and become invested in. Give your characters depth and goals, flaws, and quirks. Be sure that your characters grow as a result of the challenges presented in the story. A reader's investment in the characters can enhance their engagement with the plot and heighten the emotional impact of the story.

Establish conflict and stakes

Engaging plots rely on conflict. Introduce conflicts that are meaningful and have high stakes for the characters. Conflict drives the story forward, creates tension, and keeps readers invested. Consider both external conflicts, such as battles, mysteries, weather crises, or obstacles to overcome, and internal conflicts such as personal struggles or moral dilemmas, to add depth to your story.

Maintain pacing and build suspense

Effective storytelling involves managing the pacing of your plot. Balance slower, introspective moments with faster-paced, action-filled scenes. Use suspense and well-timed revelations to keep readers hooked and eager to turn the pages. Consider cliffhangers, unexpected twists, and well-timed reveals to maintain interest and momentum.

Ready to write a strong story and plot?

Now that you know the difference between plot and story, it’s time to write! Be sure you have crafted a powerful story that carries the narrative, evokes emotion in the reader, and explores the theme of the novel.  When crafting the plot, be sure the plot moves the story forward in a manner that engages the reader and creates tension and conflict. Outline your novel so that the action of the plot moves the character’s narrative arc forward in a way that is engaging, well-paced, and keeps the reader's attention. Create compelling characters with flaws and goals that the reader can both relate to and care about. Establish conflicts and stakes that build suspense while maintaining the pace of the story in a manner that keeps the reader turning the page. If you can fold these elements of both plot and story into your novel, you’ll have created a compelling narrative with an engaging plot that readers will be eager to see through to the last page.

To learn more about the fifteen plot points in a story and how to structure a story, check out the Write a Bestselling Novel in Fifteen Steps course in the Writing Mastery Academy and join the community of writers within.


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